Imagine discovering that one of your best friends is a traitor. This person, who you’ve trusted for years, is suddenly doing terrible things behind your back — things that could make you very, very sick.
That scenario describes inflammation. At low levels, inflammation is a lifesaver, rushing to the scene of cuts and scrapes with an armada of helpful white blood cells to repair the damage. You can see inflammation at work when you have a cut on your finger that turns red and swells a bit while the white blood cells take on potentially dangerous invaders like bacteria. As the wound heals, the redness and swelling disappear, the skin over the wound closes, and you’re no worse for the wear. In simple cases like this, inflammation solves a problem and goes away, as it should.
But as helpful as inflammation can be, there’s a dark side, too. Long-term, whole-body inflammation is an all-too-common condition these days, brought on by many factors, including environmental toxins or a poor diet of processed foods and “bad” fats. Instead of a localized response when you cut your finger, low-grade, systemic inflammation sets up shop throughout your entire body and refuses to leave. It’s the same response that occurs when you cut your finger, but now it’s occurring throughout your whole body. Inside the body, the inflammation simmers quietly, like a slow cooker, damaging cells and tissues.
To make matters worse, you probably aren’t even aware of it because inflammation is very sneaky. The symptoms may mimic another condition. Or an individual may be diagnosed with an inflammation-related condition, like arthritis, without realizing inflammation is involved. (Any disorder that ends in “-itis” — prostatitis, gastritis, or arthritis, for example — is inflammation related.) You may not even be aware that anything is amiss until catastrophe strikes.
This is what happened to my patient, Scott. Several years ago, Scott’s blood work revealed high levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP, a recognized marker for inflammation. Scott listened patiently while I explained the risks that go along with inflammation and how he could lower his score with lifestyle changes, like a better diet. Unfortunately, he was not convinced there was a problem. “I hear what you’re saying, Dr. Connealy,” he said, “but I feel fine. My philosophy is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Preventive medicine is a tough sell, especially when the patient has no symptoms — or at least none that he’s aware of. But a year later, Scott suffered a mild stroke (also known as transient ischemic attack or TIA), which sent him to the emergency room. Scott came to see me because the doctor who treated him in the hospital recommended taking a daily aspirin to thin his blood and prevent a second, possibly more serious stroke from occurring.
Scott took aspirin for a few months, but like so many people, aspirin therapy did not agree with his stomach and he had to stop. “At one point, I was on the floor, doubled over in pain — that’s how badly my stomach hurt,” he told me. “So I thought maybe you could give me a different blood thinner, one that won’t kill my stomach. I really don’t want to have another stroke.”
Situations like Scott’s are very common. In fact, this is the problem with cookie-cutter health recommendations that treat us all the same. Some people can tolerate aspirin better than others, and aspirin does counteract inflammation. But does that mean you should take it?
Aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen — the most popular of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — are so widely available that we don’t think of them as dangerous drugs. But they are. And the side effects of over-the-counter and prescription painkillers are not pretty. Every year, complications from NSAIDs send thousands of people to the hospital. Even worse, approximately 6,000 people die from these drugs annually. They are especially dangerous for anyone who drinks alcohol, because the combination of painkillers and alcohol can cause serious liver damage.
In Scott’s case, it was necessary for him to take a blood thinner, so I wrote him a prescription for a safer version. However, that was only a solution to the symptom — not the root cause of the problem. He needed to also deal with the inflammation in his body before it created even more dire consequences.
As I mentioned earlier, chronic, low-level inflammation can operate quietly in the background, setting the stage for a long list of serious conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, and more. Treating the symptoms of any of these conditions without tackling inflammation is a waste of time and money. And it also short-changes every patient who dutifully follows doctor’s orders, only to end up suffering needlessly. So, Scott and I spent some time looking at how he could improve his diet and cool off the inflammatory cycle he was caught up in.
Fighting Inflammation with Food
Believe it or not, what you eat can make a tremendous difference in your body’s inflammation levels. The Standard American Diet (SAD), loaded with fast and prepared foods, provides all the elements (sugar, refined flour, red and processed meat, and eggs) to create a perfect storm of inflammation. Replacing at least some of those foods with healthier fare — especially fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, spices, and wild-caught fish — can make a big difference.
So can substituting more omega-3 “good” fats for omega-6 oils found in vegetable oils, like safflower, corn, soy, and canola. Good fats are found in fatty, deep water fish like herring, salmon, tuna, cod, and anchovies, as well as olive, grapeseed, and avocado oils. In an ideal diet, we would consume three times as many omega-3s as omega-6s. The first step in achieving that ratio is passing up convenience foods that are made with popular vegetable oils.
Scott found that giving up chips, crackers, and similar fare cooked in corn and other omega-6 vegetable oils wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be. These days there are healthier snacks made with olive oil, whole grains, and similar ingredients.
But switching from foods loaded with saturated fat, like burgers and milkshakes, was more challenging for Scott. But when I told him that saturated fats promote inflammation, he agreed to go without his favorite high-fat goodies for a 30-day “trial period.”
For Scott, following this diet made a huge difference. “I really didn’t get the whole good fat/bad fat thing until I cut back on bad fats and started using more olive oil,” he told me later. “After a few days, I noticed that I didn’t feel like I was trying to digest a rock after lunch. Then my pants started fitting better, and I was hooked!”
Augment Your Diet with Anti-Inflammatory Vitamins & Nutrients
Mother Nature has provided us with quite a few different compounds that can stamp out inflammation. So, while eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is the highest priority, you may also want to include one or more of these safe and effective supplements. There are many others, including astaxanthin, bromelain, resveratrol, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), and papain, but the ones listed below are among my favorites.
Although it’s best known as a cold fighter, there is an impressive body of research showing that vitamin C can do much more than help tame sniffles. A hardworking antioxidant, vitamin C offers two added bonuses: it helps the body deal with stress, and it boosts the activity of another outstanding anti-inflammatory, vitamin E.
Although other mammals can produce vitamin C in their bodies, humans cannot. Studies have shown that Americans tend to consume far too few vitamin C-rich foods. And doses of vitamin C found in most multivitamins tend to be low, so additional supplements are a good idea. Vitamin C is water-soluble. That means any excess is flushed from the body in the urine and there’s no danger of overdosing. I recommend 2,000 to 4,000 mg daily, in divided doses throughout the day.
Ideally, vitamin C supplements should be taken several times a day to maintain sufficient levels of the nutrient. In addition, you can get extra vitamin C from your diet. Fresh fruits, especially citrus, cantaloupe, berries, and mango, as well as many vegetables contain vitamin C.
A powerhouse anti-inflammatory, curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the spice used in curries and other Indian foods. Research has shown that curcumin is as effective as cortisone for treating arthritis of all kinds. In addition, curcumin lowers cholesterol and improves circulation and digestion. Furthermore, studies looking at food preferences and disease have shown that people whose diets regularly include turmeric have lower rates of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer.
Not surprisingly, hundreds of clinical trials have demonstrated curcumin’s ability to lower inflammation on multiple fronts. And researchers point to repeated successes while using curcumin to treat arthritis, allergies, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic conditions associated with aging. I suggest a daily dose of 500 mg as a good place to start.
Remember the anti-fat hysteria that swept the nation a few decades ago? Since then, we’ve come a long way toward recognizing that some fats are actually healthful — and absolutely necessary. The so-called “good fats” — also known as essential fatty acids or EFAs — protect us against a long list of conditions, including heart disease, stroke, depression, and, yes — inflammation! And note, please, that in this case, the name says it all — “essential fatty acids” are indeed essential to our health, and we must get them from either food or supplements; our bodies cannot produce these.
There are three types of EFAs: omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s. The first two are the only ones we’re looking at today. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is 1:1. But today’s typical diet is overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids found in safflower, sunflower, soy, corn, and partially hydrogenated fats. As a result, our current ratio is closer to 20:1 — in other words, far, far more omega-6s than omega 3s. It’s not that omega-6s are bad. The problem is, our intake is so unbalanced that our bodies are sorely lacking in omega-3s — and that is not good.
To correct the imbalance, you need to do three things — eliminate as many unhealthy oils and foods made with them from your diet as possible; replace those oils with better, omega-3-rich oils (olive oil, grapeseed, avocado oil); and consume more omega-3s, like wild-caught fish or molecularly distilled fish oil supplements. If you opt for supplements, look for a product that contains a healthful balance of the two omega-3s, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). The ideal ratio for these nutrients is twice as much DHA as EPA, according to recent research.
There is a large and impressive body of research showing how beneficial omega-3s are for fighting inflammation. In one recent study, for example, researchers concluded that omega-3s from fish oils were “incredibly potent” anti-inflammatories, capable of warding off diabetes and heart disease. I recommend 1,000 mg two times per day.
From ginger ale to gingerbread, the spice ginger is familiar to most of us. Ginger (but, unfortunately, not ginger ale or gingerbread) contains some 500 different substances, and only a few of them have been examined so far for healing properties. Yet, long before science began studying ginger, it was used for medicinal purposes, particularly fighting inflammation. Many arthritis sufferers swear by ginger supplements, and it’s also an effective remedy for motion sickness and other types of nausea.
Ginger’s benefits go way beyond easing motion sickness, though. Studies have shown that it decreases inflammatory substances linked to various cancers, including colorectal and ovarian.
Personally, I like to make a refreshing anti-inflammatory “tea” using hot water, a few slices of ginger root (available in most supermarkets), and raw, organic honey. Of course, you can also use the spice or fresh root in cooking. Ginger is available in supplement form, too. As always, you should follow the dosage instructions on the product you choose.
Inflammation is a complex topic, and you deserve a big pat on the back for taking the time to read this and stay informed. In future issues, we’ll explore the topic further, because inflammation really is a health factor that cannot be ignored. In the meantime, remember to take your recommended supplements and eat your fruits, vegetables, spices, and wild-caught fish — the best inflammation fighters known to date.